Recently, a friend asked me if Railways of the World: The Card Game was a train-themed deck-building game. I think it's fair to say that he was turned-off by the theme and art in Ascension, and was wondering if a train-themed deck-building game had been published. RotW:TCG is certainly not a deck-building game, and I'm not so sure that one exists (a quick look at BGG suggests not).
Of course, this led to me thinking about what such a game would look like. I'm not an avid train game player. In fact, I've only played Ticket to Ride and Railroad Tycoon/Railways of the World. Those games all have one thing in common: the player buys links between cities. This is the basis of my train-themed deck-building game.
As much as possible, I want everything to be represented by cards in the players' decks. Links and money (3 denominations in $1000 increments -- $1000, $2000, and $3000) are the first two types of cards. In order to obtain links, players would have to spend money. Money can only be obtained in one of two ways: takings loans and delivering goods.
Loans are a single card that a player can gain at any time. When a player takes a loan, he also takes the appropriate amount of money (e.g., $4000). The money goes into the player's hand, and the loan card goes into the player's discard. Loans also have a negative victory point value.
I created 48 link cards to begin between 18 cities, borrowing heavily (okay, completely) from Railways of the World. At first blush, I think some cities have too many links (Toledo has 8!), and some links are too expensive (Buffalo to Boston is 14 times more than New York City to Philadelphia), but I recognize full well that this is just a starting set around which I will build the mechanics.
I'd like for only a limited number of links to be available to players at one time, similar to the center row in Ascension. Because of this, there may need to be a balancing mechanism to counter-act first-player luck. For example, maybe there needs to be a varying start player that players bid on after each player takes a turn (i.e., bid, everyone takes a turn, bid, etc). Alternatively, all links could be available all of the time, but that could still give the first player a significant advantage.
When a link is purchased, the player should have the option to either put it in his discard or immediately open the link (or maybe it should go directly into his hand -- forcing another action to open it?). Opening a link allows the owning player to deliver a good from either end-point on that link, and it also allows other players to use that link in a multiple-link delivery. Players only need to own the link coming from the source of the delivery. If the player chooses to place the link in his discard, he may later open the link when the card is available in his hand.
When a player opens a link, he must either discard any currently open links, or incorporate the new link into a single route with any or all of the links that he has already opened. This may be too restrictive, and it may be necessary to allow players to include other players' open links to create a single route.
There will need to be a small map to keep track of the goods available for delivery, at the very minimum. I found that it also might be useful for players to mark the links that they have purchase on the map as it can be difficult to keep track of what you have purchased. I don't want memorization of purchased links to be a necessary in order for a player to be successful in the game.
At this point I have four different colors of goods, and 11 cities that can receive one color of good (2 of one color; 3 of the other three colors). Every city is initially stocked with some random goods; the number of goods on each city is dependent on the city itself (a la Railways of the World -- surprised?).
When a good is delivered, the player receives one $1000 money card for each of his own links that he delivered across. If he utilized any other player's link, that player gains one $1000 money card for each of his links that were utilized. I think I want to also include engine upgrades, which would require a player to have an engine level at least a high as the number of links that he wishes to utilize in a delivery (e.g., he would have to have at least an engine level of 3 to deliver across 3 links). It's something that I would include in the beginning, but will be more than willing to cut out if it appears to be unnecessary.
On a players turn, he may initially perform two actions. The available actions are:
- Buy a link
- Open a link in your hand
- Consolidate funds - Return any amount of money from your hand to the supply. Gain an equivalent amount of money in any denomination (to your hand or discard?).
- Deliver a good
- Upgrade your engine
- Increase the number of actions you can perform (hire workers?). This increase would not be available until the next turn. (not sure this is necessary)
Players can take a loan at any time without using an action.
Play continues until a predetermined number of cities have exhausted their goods.
I haven't decided on a winning condition. "Most money (minus loan penalties)" would seem apt, but I'm afraid that not separating money from victory points could cause a runaway leader problem. However, they are so inextricably linked, I'm not sure that it matter. One alternative would be to give victory points for various other things -- delivering, each link is worth some points, perhaps some goals that give you points (again, a la RotW) -- but I don't want to make the game too complex. I'd like to keep it a fairly simple card game.
I've played part of one game where I was playing two players. I was only giving each player one action, and I was limited the "consolidate funds" action to returning exactly two cards to supply in exchange for one. This was much too slow, which led to the current rules outlined above.
The other difficult problem is determining how the links should flow from the center row. Initially, I was not only replacing purchase links, but was cycling out a link every time someone took a turn without buying a link. This was clearly cycling links too fast as it was possible for a player to never have the opportunity to purchase a link. I'm thinking about cycling cards when a link it purchased or if nobody buys a link for one round (i.e., if the last person that purchased a link passes on his next turn -- in which case everyone has passed on the current pool -- then one or more of the links are discarded and replaced). It's a tough problem that would probably work itself out better in playtesting than in theorizing.
I think balancing the cost of links, the number of goods, and the location of the various colored cities is going to be difficult. Hopefully cheating off of RotW will give me a good head start. I think that I can find out if the game has the potential to be fun without it being well-balanced, so it's pretty far down on the list of problems to worry about.